From Tacit Loyalism to Active Nationalism: Change effected by Carnew Emmets GAA club 1888-1919

The golden jubilee celebration of the 6th Earl Fitzwilliam and Lady Fitzwilliam in 1888. This photo was taken at the cricket ground in Coollattin. The man on the extreme left with a piece of paper in his hand is agent Frank Brooke who was gunned down by the IRA at Westland Row railway station in July 1920.
Courtesy of Kevin Lee
Admission ticket to Carnew Athletic Sports event, 8th August 1889
Courtesy of Kevin Lee
Carnew Castle as seen from the location of the viewing stand at the Umrigar sports facility.
Image: Kevin Lee
The Carnew Emmets team of 1909. Back Row: Thomas Cullen, Michael O’Toole (President), Edward Travers (Vice President), N. Lynch (Treasurer), D. O’Sullivan (Assistant Secretary). 2nd Row: P.J. Moynihan (Secretary), A. McDonald, T. Murphy, G. Keogh, O. O’Neill (Goalkeeper), J. Brennan, T. Brennan, D. Cullen, J. Bowe, John McCrea. 3rd Row: P. Browne, P. Austin, P. Murphy, M. Gray, James Byrne (Captain), J. Condron, J Somers, M. Condron. Front Row: William Birch, M. Behan, James McCrea, M. Doyle, Michael Redmond, P. Doyle.
Courtesy of Kevin Lee
‘Wicklow People’ advertisement for the 1916 football tournament. World War 1 was in progress. The wise boys in the Emmets club were having their own take on ‘Conscription'.
Wicklow People newspaper, 7th October 1916
Advert for Carnew Emmetts match 1st May 1910 - Michael ‘Gunner’ Behan had as a footballer acquired something of a cult status. Here, patrons are being urged to come to watch ‘his tactics’.
Wicklow People newspaper, 30th April 1910
Advert for Carnew sports day 1893 - the Coollattin administration were courting the favour of the locals by holding the event under the rules of the ICA and GAA
Wicklow People newspaper 29th July 1893

William Spencer Wentworth, acceded to the title 6th Earl Fitzwilliam in 1857. He was the longest serving Earl and held the title for 45 years until his death in 1902. During his tenure expenditure on the Coollattin estate was not spared. Notable buildings such as Ardeen House and the Town Hall in Shillelagh date form this period. Many more humble edifices  were constructed as homes for estate workers and tenants on the sprawling property. The Woodenbridge to Shillelagh was built with intermediate stations at Aughrim, Ballinglen and Tinahely.

Golden Jubilee

Arguably, the reverence and respect accorded to the Earl and his wife Lady Harriet accrued from the manner in which money generated by the family’s coal mines in Yorkshire was splashed out on entertainment and lavish living at Coollattin House. Every major event in both the British royal family as well as the Fitzwilliam family was marked by ostentacious revelry.  In 1888 the golden jubilee of the Earl and his wife was marked by a three day bash in the grounds of Coollattin House. On the first day of the celebration close on 3,000 children were transported to Coollattin House where every conceivable type of swing, swinging boat and merry go round had been installed for their use. Like the tenants on the following day, the children were provided with a meal served in the two largest marquees ever erected on the island of Ireland. The catering was entrusted to the English firm of Wright. There was no firm in Ireland capable of providing so many meals at the one time.

The golden jubilee celebration was but one of many extravagant events staged at Coollattin. The marriage of the Duke of Wales and the Princess of Denmark in 1863, the death of Lady Harriet Fitzwilliam at Coollattin and the arrival of the Fitzwilliam heir apparent, Lord Milton, to take up residence in Carnew Castle all provided occasions for the slackening of the Fitzwilliam purse strings.

Sporting arena

Money expended on catering and society events at the big house was matched by expenditure on the provision of facilities for  sporting and recreational activities. On the outskirts of Carnew, in the townland of Umrigar, what would nowadays be described as an ‘event centre’, ‘sporting arena’ or even ‘centre of excellence’ was developed. Central to this facility was a racecourse which was laid out, built and maintained by staff from the building yard at Coollattin. It had a jumps course, a hurdle course and a flat course. Drainage work was carried on the wetter parts of the course. There was a viewing stand, jockeys room, bar etc. It attracted runners and riders from some of the country’s best known stables.

The facility at Umrigar also had an athletics track, a cinder cycling track  and a cricket ground. The stand, pavilion and jockey’s changing room provided facilities both for cricket matches and also for Athletic sports meetings. At the moment we know little about the exploits of teams representing Carnew Cricket Club. We have a record of a match and a return match with a team representing Wicklow town. The encounters between the two teams were marked by ‘handbags’ and a bit of a stand-off. One of the leading lights in the club was the town’s doctor, Francis Brady. The star player was Jack Molloy. This man, with other cricketers from the town was later to distinguish himself playing Gaelic football. During their cricket playing days these men were rubbing shoulders with sons of the areas landed squires.

GAA founded

During the 1880s the winds of change were beginning to blow. The Gaelic Athletic Association had been founded on 1 November 1884 by Michael Cusack in Miss Hayes’ Hotel in Thurles, County Tipperary. The aim of the association was to revive specifically Irish games. It was to become one of the great cultural revivalist organisations of what was a ‘Celtic Dawn’.  Carnew Gaelic Athletic Club was founded by Michael O’Toole and in July 1888 organised a tournament to which twelve clubs were invited. Four football games were played, Askinagap V Craanford, Kilanerin V Kilavaney, Askamore V Clonmore and Ballyrahan V Parkbridge. Four other teams attended but did not get to play a game due to the advent of darkness. The new movement was slow in gaining a foothold in the border town. In October 1889 the ‘Wicklow People’ reported that the young men of the town had convened a meeting with the aim of resurrecting the team. Significantly the Carnew club was now given the name the ‘Esmond Kyan G.A.C.’ It was so named after a one of the iconic Wexford leaders of the 1798 Rebellion. Kyan, a native of Monamolin, had fought with distinction on the British side during the American War of Independence. Back home he threw in his lot with the insurgents and commanded the artillery at the unsuccessful siege of Arklow on 9 June, 1798.  It was here that he lost his left arm when struck by a canon ball. More significantly, from a Carnew point of view it was Kyan who led the raiding party that torched the newly built Coollattin House. On 20 June 1798 he unsuccessfully sought to save the lives of the loyalists who were executed on Wexford Bridge. It profited him little – he himself was executed on the same bridge one month later on 20 July 1798. In naming the club after Kyan the Carnew men were making a statement of intent.

Progress in expanding the influence of the GAA in both Carnew and Shillelagh stalled during the 1890s. This was no doubt due to a decision to bring the estate sponsored sports events in both villages under the newly formulated rules of the GAA. The Coollattin administration generally sought to portray themselves as all things to all men.  In May 1893 the annual sports in Shillelagh, now held under GAA rules had as its patrons Earl Fitzwilliam and Lady Alice Fitzwilliam. Frank Brooke the agent was its Honorary President. Amongst those cheering on the competitors on the  were Earl Fitzwilliam, Lady Mary Fitzwilliam and Lady Alice Fitzwilliam.

Carnew GAA revived

As the millennium drew to a close the Carnew GAA club was revived once more. A decade earlier they had addended the name of Esmond Kyan to the club. Now, in a thinly veiled affront to the Coollattin administration, the club was named ‘Kruger’s Volunteers’. The name was clearly a reference to Paul Kruger who was the Boer leader in the war being waged against the British in South Africa. The Fitzwilliam heir, Lord Milton and Frank Brooke’s son were both serving with the British army during this campaign.

As the 20th century dawned the Carnew club grew from strength to strength. The growth in popularity of the rejuvenated games can to a large extent be attributed to two of the town’s prominent nationalists, Michael O’Toole, the club president and Croneyhorn farmer John McCrea.

John McCrea – prominent nationalist

John McCrea was prominent in nationalist circles in south Wicklow. He was the leading light in the Carnew branch of the Ancient Order of Hibernians. In May 1913 he was co opted to Wicklow County Council to fill the vacancy left by the late Michael Byrne J.P. of Coolalug House. His sons Bob, Jim and Pat were all active in the struggle for Irish freedom. Pat was employed in a shop owned by his brother Bob in Rathmines. He was active in the Volunteers and was injured while fighting in the GPO during Easter week, 1916. In a daring attempt to spring General Sean MacKeown from Mountjoy Pat, dressed in British army uniform, drove a stolen armoured car into the prison precinct. Later,in June 1920, together with fellow Wicklow members of Michael Collins’ ‘squad’, Tom Keogh and Tom Cullen, he was one of those sent to Gorey to assassinate District Inspector Percival Lee Wilson. The latter while stationed in Dublin  was the officer behind humiliating treatment of 1916 leaders Tom Clarke and Sean McDiarmada. Wilson was walking to his home from the RIC station in Gorey. At Gorey railway station he bought a copy of the Irish Times and was as he walked reading the paper when he was gunned down on the road leading to Ballycanew.

Pat McCrea’s father, John, had provided the Carnew Emmets club with a playing field on his farm. The new playing facility now replaced the one developed by Earl Fitzwilliam at Umrigar as the town’s most popular sporting venue. It was here that the young men of the town trained and played tournament games against some of the country’s most prominent Gaelic football teams. At Umrigar Jack Molloy was a star cricketer and was the opening batsman for the town’s cricket team. Molloy with many of his friends now abandoned the willow bat and went to McCrea’s field to hone his skill as a footballer. Two members of the team Jim ‘Cox’ Byrne, the captain and Michael ‘Gunner’ Behan were fine proponents of the game and acquired a cult status throughout the county.  The Carnew club, when advertising tournament games, invited patrons to come to see the magical skill of ‘Gunner’ Behan.

Sports days and tournaments

On sports days at Umrigar the crowds attending were entertained by British army bands such as the Dublin City Artillery Band. Aligned with the Gaelic Athletic Association movement  Carnew now had no less than three bands. Religious and sporting events had a choice between the town’s brass band and the bands which had been established in the townlands of Croneyhorn and Ballingate.  The repertoire of all three had a preponderance of Irish martial airs and nationalist  tunes.

The tournaments staged in McCrea’s field created a great buzz in the area. In August 1909 the famous Dublin team, McBride Mitchels, came by train to Shillelagh where they were entertained to lunch in Kenny’s Hotel. After dinner they were conveyed by horse and carts to the playing field in Croneyhorn. The leading cart had on it a magnificent Carnew Emmets banner which had recently been commissioned by the club. The visitors were led onto the field by the Carnew Brass Band. Prior to the game the teams had their photographs taken. Carnew won the toss and played against the breeze in the first half. At half time the Carnew men led by 1 – 4 to 0 – 1. Only one point was scored during the second half with the Emmets winning on a score line of 1 – 5 to 0 – 1. It was a good year for the emerging club. They reached the county senior football but were beaten in the final by Rathnew. Seven years later on Easter Sunday 1916 Carnew won the county junior title when they defeated Donard in a game played in Tullow. In the senior football final of the same  year, in a game played at Mount Pleasant, the Emmets played a draw with arch rivals Annacurra. They were awarded the title when their opponents failed to turn up for the replay.

World War 1 ended on Armistice Day, 11 November 1918. In the town of Carnew the sporting focus had shifted from the Coollattin race course, athletics track and cricket ground at Umrigar to the GAA ground located on the farm of John McCrea in Croneyhorn. Oak wood from the impressive oak viewing stand, lounge and changing rooms was being redeployed by the townsfolk in the making of furniture and in home improvements. The townland of Umrigar would no longer echo the to the shouts of excited spectators and to the music of British army bands. However, the biggest change had taken place in the psyche of the people of Carnew.  The early 20th century growth of nationalism in the town can in no small measure be attributed to the growth of the Carnew Emmets GAA club.

Comments about this page

  • I have an old gaa Bray championship belt from 1888.
    Would love to find out more about it.

    By Mark Murphy (21/01/2021)
  • A very interesting study of changing political and cultural loyalties. Christopher Timmins of Baltinglass, who died in the 1918/19 flu epidemic, is named in newspaper reports of his death as a former star of Carnew Emmets – his photograph for my piece here
    was very kindly provided by his great-nephew, Billy Timmins.
    Of course that particular pandemic notoriously impacted most seriously on the young and fit – it would be interesting to know if any of the 1909 team in your photograph also became victims.

    By Rosemary Raughter (20/10/2020)

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